With the internet and wireless communications playing such a large part in our lives, there’s a lot of information around these days – and much of it is simply data about data. This metadata as it’s known describes not only resources, web pages, and database entries, but also objects – including some of the artifacts that we create every day.
The additional information provided by metadata can be useful – but in the wrong hands, or communicated in the wrong way, it can also be a problem. Such is the case with geo-tagging.
What is Geo-Tagging?
Geo-tagging is the process of attaching location information in the form of geographical metadata to digital media like web sites, videos, and photographs. Geo-tags may also be applied to digital output and communications such as tweets or status updates on social media.
The information included in a geo-tag may include place co-ordinates (latitude and longitude), bearings, altitude, distances, or even place names.
Useful Applications for Geo-Tagging
Geo-tagging is a function of the location services associated with your computer system, network, or mobile devices. It’s powered by the global positioning system (GPS) or satellite positioning used by your system, and based on the position and co-ordinates of the metadata, geo-tagging may be used to find location-specific destinations (e.g. shops and restaurants) or web sites and online resources.
Most social networks and their related services use some form of geo-tagging to track the location of their subscribers. This allows users to augment their posts and updates with their current location. If you’re traveling the world or visiting a new restaurant or night spot, this can be a great way to let your friends know where you are, and what you’re doing.
One of the commonest uses of geo-tagging is to associate a location with the pictures or footage shot by a smartphone camera or digital recording device. Geo-tagging may occur after a photograph or video footage is shot, or once the images are posted online. The increasing numbers of cell phones with built-in GPS facilities are capable of geo-tagging a photograph as it’s being shot.
How To Turn It On
On your mobile devices, geo-tagging is directly governed by your Location Services (or Location & Security) settings, which need to have the option to allow tracking and reporting of your location enabled, before this function may be specified for each app that you want to use it with.
At the application level, you’ll then need to select the option to “Store Location in Pictures”, “Geo-tag Photos” or similar, depending on what app you’re using.
There’s usually a similar state of affairs on the social media platforms, with the Privacy or Location settings of your user profile governing your consent to the use of location services and geo-tagging at a higher level, followed by platform-specific lower level controls at the points where you post your updates, upload your photos, or make comments. These controls are available on both the sites themselves, and on their dedicated mobile apps.
On Facebook, there’s a location pin icon which you may use to “Check In” to a place before making a post. You can choose a location from the drop-down menu, or specify one yourself.
The “Compose New Tweet” box on Twitter has a location pin icon which you can click or tap on to pull up a list of nearby locations. The one you choose will appear underneath each tweet you subsequently post.
The caption tab on Instagram gives you the option to add a location for each video or photo that you post. The image or clip will also be saved to your personal Instagram map (in your user profile) at the chosen location.
Photos or videos on Snapchat may also be geo-tagged with fun stickers that change depending on your geographical location. You’ll need to swipe right on an image or clip to view the sticker option.
The Potential Downside
All very fine, when it goes right and is used for legitimate purposes. But location services in general, and the geo-tagging of personal input in particular, come with associated dangers. Among the nightmare scenarios facing mobile device owners if geo-tagging is improperly used or abused are:
- Location services and geo-tagging provide information that may be sold on to advertisers, who can use this data to provide you with targeted advertising based on your position – and loads of it.
- Unintentionally revealing the location of yourself or your loved ones to those who have legitimate reason to assume that you or they are somewhere else. Showing up on Facebook drinking cocktails in the Bahamas when you’re supposed to be at work is at the milder end of this spectrum.
- Giving enough information about your current whereabouts (and where you’re not) to allow thieves to target your home or work place in your absence.
- Giving enough information about your current whereabouts to allow malicious parties to target you or your loved ones for assault, or worse.
- Providing geo-tagging metadata that could allow outsiders access to your children or vulnerable members of your family or social circle.
How To Turn It Off
If that’s given you unpleasant food for thought, then you’ll be happy to know that it is possible to opt out of geo-tagging, as well. There are several strategies you can adopt, including:
- Don’t enable it in the first place. Note that disabling your location services may throw a damper on your device’s mapping capabilities, public transport scheduling apps, and services that enable you to keep an eye on your children, so this may not be the best option if these functions are critical to you.
- If you do use location services, check in to them with caution, and set your location data so that it’s not searchable or available for public view.
- Consider deactivating geo-tagging functions on your social media accounts and any blogs or web sites that you frequent or maintain.
- Geo-tag your photos with due diligence. Don’t geo-tag pictures of your children or your home.
- If you use a family location service to watch over your children, make sure that unauthorized outsiders can’t locate them.
- Exercise caution when checking in or posting geo-tagged content on social media. If you have young teenagers whom you feel may be vulnerable to these services, consider using parental control apps to prevent them from using check-in services as well.
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